Having joined the Guinness Ireland graduate programme straight after college, Tom Kinsella spent over 20 years at Diageo in a variety of Irish and international marketing roles. In 2012 – seeking more diversity and a brand new challenge in his career – he joined AIB, where he is chief marketing officer and focused on rebuilding the business and creating a customer-first culture.
About Tom Kinsella
Tell us about your education and early career
After secondary school in Belvedere College I did a BComm in UCD. From there I joined Guinness – as it was back then – on the graduate scheme, intending to spend a couple of years there learning my trade before moving on.
It is a truly great company. I worked all over the world in various roles, across a range of amazing brands from Guinness to Baileys. But then I hit 40 and having spent half my life there it was time for a change!
Although I had never considered financial services I got a phone call one day inviting me in to meet Bernard Byrne, AIB’s now CEO. He spoke about his vision for the business and it made me want to join.
What is your current role?
I joined in 2012 as group marketing director and have been chief marketing officer since November 2015. My job is focused on helping to rebuild a once great and subsequently very damaged Irish brand and company and to ensure that it’s in a better place than it was before. Primarily, it is about changing the culture of the business, repaying the taxpayer and building a sustainably profitable company with a strong purpose-led mentality.
There’s obviously a professional challenge, which is fantastic, but it is more than that – selling booze is great fun but ultimately not important, whereas sorting out AIB is economically important to the country. That’s a really attractive and interesting part of the job.
I was given a blank sheet of paper when I joined. My role was to professionalise the marketing unit and put the customer at the heart of the business. I was delighted for the team when recently it won the prestigious Marketing Team of The Year award for the second year in a row – great acknowledgment from industry peers for all the hard work the team and our partners have put in to building a more customer focused business.
We have done that and continue to change the culture every day. As chief marketing officer I sit at the leadership table as the voice of the customer in the business and I’m accountable for everything from the customer experience to our customer propositions and our customer care team to our brand activities.
Another attractive aspect is the fact that the leadership team sets and executes the strategy. Unlike a multinational business we do not have to defer to headquarters somewhere else in the world.
What motivates you?
I’m very motivated by the challenge of change. I’m not a status quo kind of individual as I just don’t find that invigorating. I enjoy the challenge of having problems that need to be fixed and trying to stay ahead of the competition.
The idea that change has never been as fast as it is right now and will never again be as slow as it is today is extraordinarily true in the financial services world. AIB and other banks have been around forever and the only reason they haven’t suffered total disintermediation in the same way other categories have as a result of technology is primarily due to regulation. But all regulation will do is slow down that disintermediation and that change, which are inevitable.
Our busiest branch is the app on people’s phones. Extraordinarily, that didn’t even exist seven years ago. We have to displace ourselves before other people do. So it’s a very demanding place to be and an incredibly invigorating and energising one. It helps that I’m working with a likeminded set of people who accept the challenge and are committed to building a better future for AIB.
What is your leadership style?
I am obsessed with talent, with having the right team and developing people. I firmly believe that people are the key differentiator in a business. It’s all about getting the right people onto your team, giving them the correct support and development and then letting them get on with things. It’s important also to never ever be afraid of either diversity or the people you suspect may be smarter than you are. That’s the only way you’ll make progress.
I try to be as empowering and as hands-off as possible – there’s no point in having a fantastic team and then doing their jobs for them. First of all, I’m not that good, but also you have to give people the space to do their jobs if you want to keep them.
It is my job to make sure that everybody is aligned and engaged behind a common vision. If everybody on the team knows where we are heading and the role they play in getting there then we have a much greater chance of success.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I think we have achieved a lot but undoubtedly the IPO in 2017 was a pivotal moment in the company’s journey – it was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of colleagues and it was fantastic to see that rewarded by the success of the IPO.
Are there particular failures you have learnt from?
I’ve had multiple screw-ups throughout my career and I am sure I will have more. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and not to hide them. You have to have a culture where mistakes are out in the open, where you understand the lessons, learn from them and move on.
In hindsight, I think my own biggest mistake is that, as much as I enjoyed my time at Diageo, I spent too long there. I should have left earlier – if I was doing my career over again, I would strive to have more diversity in my portfolio of experiences!
What is your advice for success?
There’s no substitute for hard work. I see it here and I’ve seen it in the past, when you recruit the very best of the best graduates. You may have two who are equally bright and sharp but while one is happy to put the hours in and work their way up the other is wondering why they’re not running the place by now. In my view, hard work is vital for experience and confidence.
It’s important also to have the confidence in yourself to trust and back yourself. It’s not about being arrogant: the people with most confidence tend to be the ones who work the hardest and are willing to learn. Give me somebody with curiosity, willingness and energy to learn over somebody who is perfectly well qualified but has a sense of entitlement.
The other important thing is to find your passion. When you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it becomes a lot easier. It may take some time to figure out what it is. It took me a while to learn that my passion is about transformational change. I’m fanatical about customers – they pay my salary and I can’t understand it when people don’t get it!
Who or what has influenced or inspired you?
Certainly my education was a big influence. My time at Belvedere and UCD was very influential on me, both from an academic and from a values point of view. And carrying those values through my life has been hugely beneficial for me.
I have met and worked with inspirational people on my journey. I’ve been lucky enough to have had good bosses and good mentors on the way.
I get a lot of my inspiration – especially in this role – when I look at our newer recruits, the graduates coming in who have a completely different view of the world. One of my challenges at this point is to keep myself relevant. In that regard, the whole notion of reverse mentoring is hugely important. You can read about it, but it’s all there in front of you – talk to the people you hire.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m still 100% committed to AIB and to the notion of building a legacy here and a business that is entirely customer centred and about being the best possible company it can be. We have an accountability to the taxpayer, our customers, our investors, our community and to our wider stakeholders to really be as solid and sustainable as we can going forward, and to protect that. We think we’ve come a long way on the journey but we’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. I don’t want AIB to just be the best customer company in Ireland. I want it to be the best customer company in the world. That’s the legacy I’ve signed up to build.
Otherwise, who knows what the future holds. There’s a big bad world out there. I’ve jumped from Diageo into AIB and I may jump again in the future if the challenge comes to me.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have three young kids – they’re 13, 10 and seven – and, like a lot of people, I spend most of my weekends being the taxi driver. The kids seem to have a much more organised and better life than I ever had at that age. On the odd occasion when my spare time is not kid-focused, I love cooking and my sports of choice are GAA, rugby and golf.
How has your degree benefited your career and/or personal life?
My degree was absolutely critical in setting me off on the right foot on my career.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
My best memories of UCD all centre on the circle of friends I made in my time there.
What piece/s of technology can you not live without?
What is your pet hate?
Rudeness – there is no excuse for it.
Who are your favourite writers?
Benjamin Black and Robert Harris.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
What’s the last gig you went to that you loved?
The Rolling Stones in Croke Park – they can still do it.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Christmas dinner. It is the best meal of the year!
What teams do you support?
Dublin, Leinster and Ireland.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
New York – the energy is infectious.